The basic question of whether a practice is harmful or necessary is often hotly debated; debates that sometimes rely on simplistic divisions between "Western" and local medical values. In many cases, this division masks more complicated reasons for defending harmful practices, the victims of which tend to be women and children and others who are less powerful in their society. These reasons often include power struggles, local and national politics, and/or lack of understanding about the risks of the practice among other things.
Arguably many types of negative and harmful African traditional practices have being dropped and some are gradually phased out due to the internal and external pressure brought about by globalization or civilization as the situation may suggest. For instance, the days of slavery, the days of killing of twins, albinos, burying traditional rulers with human heads and servants along with kings; days when there were no women rulers, when it was compulsory for tribal marks as well as male child preference amongst others. Most of these practices have been eliminated, while others are still in the process of being abolished.
However, one of the harmful traditional practices which I observed has not been fully phased out in our society, and of course women are the only victims that are still contending with the scourge, is the dreaded Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). FGM is an old traditional practice and investigations revealed that in some parts of Nigeria it is still being practiced, making it one of the 27 countries in Africa where FGM is still being celebrated. FGM is an invasive and painful surgical procedure that is often performed without anesthetic on the girl-child before puberty. In some instances an adult female who probably escaped FGM during childhood would be forced to be circumcised before her marriage. Various sources estimate that from about 60 to 140 million women in the world have been circumcised. An average of about four girls a minute continue to be mutilated. Their prepuce is removed and their clitoris may be partially or completely removed. In some traditions the operation is far more invasive; the labia minora are also surgically removed and the labia majora are sewn together, covering the urethra and vagina. A small opening is retained for the passage of urine and menstrual fluid.
According to reports released by the Office of the Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues, Office of the Under Secretary for Global Affairs, U.S. Department of State, June 2001, types (or categories) of this pre-marital custom are clearly enunciated in different forms. However the organisation distinctively stated that they are unaware of any support groups to protect an unwilling woman or girl against this practice. They are: Type I (commonly referred to as clitoridectomy), Type II (commonly referred to as excision) and Type III (commonly referred to as infibulation) are the most common forms of female genital mutilation (FGM) or female genital cutting (FGC) practiced in Nigeria. Type IV is practiced to a much lesser extent. The form practiced varies by ethnic group and geographical location. It crosses the numerous population groups and is a part of the many cultures, traditions and customs that exist in Nigeria. It crosses the lines of various religious groups. It is found among Christians, Muslims and Animists alike.
Attitudes, Beliefs & Misconceptions
Available records have it that the Women's Centre for Peace and Development (WOPED) has concluded that Nigerians continue this practice out of adherence to a cultural dictate with erroneous & fallacious views that uncircumcised women are promiscuous, unclean, unmarriageable, physically undesirable and/or potential health risks to themselves and their children, especially during childbirth. One traditional belief is that if a male child's head touches the clitoris during childbirth, the child will die.
With over 250 ethnic groups and an estimated population of 150 million, a national estimate of this practice is very difficult. The most recent survey is a 1999 Demographic and Health Survey of 8,205 women nationally. This survey estimates that 25.1 percent of the women of Nigeria have undergone one of these procedures. According to a 1997 World Health Organization (WHO) study, an estimated 30,625 million women and girls, or about 60 percent of the nation's total female population, have undergone one of these forms. A 1996 United Nations Development Systems study reported a similar number of 32.7 million Nigerian women affected. According to a Nigerian Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Coalition study, 33 percent of all households practice one of these forms. However, according to some Nigerian experts in the field, the actual incidence may be much higher than these figures. Leaders of the Nigerian National Committee (also the Inter-African Committee of Nigeria on Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC) have been conducting a state by state study of the practice. This 1997 study by the Center for Gender and Social Policy Studies of Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife was contracted in 1996 by a number of organizations including WHO, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Nigerian Federal Health Ministry. The study covered 148,000 women and girls from 31 community samples nationwide.
The results from fragmented data, according to IAC/Nigeria, show the following prevalence and type in the following states in Nigeria. Abia (no study); Adamawa (60-70 percent, Type IV); Akwa Ibom (65-75 percent, Type II); Anambra (40-60 percent, Type II); Bauchi (50-60 percent, Type IV); Benue (90-100 percent, Type II); Borno (10-90 percent, Types I, III and IV); Cross River (no study); Delta (80-90 percent, Type II); Edo (30-40 percent, Type II); Enugu (no study); Imo (40-50 percent, Type II); Jigawa (60-70 percent, Type IV); Kaduna (50-70 percent, Type IV); Katsina (no study); Kano (no study); Kebbi (90-100 percent, Type IV); Kogi (one percent, Type IV); Kwara (60-70 percent, Types I and II); Lagos (20-30 percent, Type I); Niger (no study); Ogun (35-45 percent, Types I and II); Ondo (90-98 percent, Type II); Osun (80-90 percent, Type I); Oyo (60-70 percent, Type I); Plateau (30-90 percent, Types I and IV); Rivers (60-70 percent, Types I and II); Sokoto (no study); Taraba (no study); Yobe (0-1 percent, Type IV); Fct Abuja (no study).
While all three forms occur throughout the country, Type III, the most severe form (narrowing of the vaginal orifice with creation of a covering seal by cutting and repositioning the labia minora and/or the labia majora, with or without excision of the clitoris), has a higher incidence in the northern states. Type II and Type I are more predominant in the south. Of the six largest ethnic groups, the Yoruba, Hausa, Fulani, Ibo, Ijaw and Kanuri, only the Fulani do not practice any form. The Yoruba practice mainly Type II and Type I. The Hausa and Kanuri practice Type III. The Ibo and Ijaw, depending upon the local community, practice any one of the three forms.
Position of 2006 International Conference:
My painstaking investigations have it that TARGET, a German human rights group, sponsored a conference on FGM in Cairo, Egypt. Muslim scholars from many nations were attendance. At the conclusion of the conference on 2006-NOV-24, their final statement declared FGM to be contrary to Islam, an attack on women, and a practice that should be criminalized: ''The conference appeals to all Muslims to stop practicing this habit, according to Islam's teachings which prohibit inflicting harm on any human being. ... The conference reminds all teaching and media institutions of their role to explain to the people the harmful effects of this habit in order to eliminate it. ... The conference calls on judicial institutions to issue laws that prohibit and criminalize this habit ... which appeared in several societies and was adopted by some Muslims although it is not sanctioned by the Qur'an or the Sunna.''
Reactions of the West & What Nigerian Govt. should do
Research showed that United Nations has supported the right of member states to grant refugee status to women who fear being mutilated if they are returned to their country of origin. Canada has granted such status to women in this situation. A judge of a Canadian Federal Court declared it a "cruel and barbaric practice." In 1994 CNN broadcast footage of the circumcision of a 10 year old Egyptian girl by an unskilled practitioner. This program drew international attention to the operation. A 500 million dollar lawsuit was brought against CNN for allegedly damaging Egypt's reputation; it was later rejected by the courts. In the West, the procedure is outlawed in Britain, Canada, France, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States. A US federal bill, "Federal Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation of 1995" was passed in 1996-SEP. Section 273.3 of the Canadian Criminal Code protects children who are ordinarily resident in Canada, (as citizens or landed migrants) from being removed from the country and subjected to FGM. In the US and Canada, the very small percentage of immigrants who wish to continue the practice often find it impossible to find a doctor who will cooperate. The operation is often done in the home by the family. Legislation against FGM can be counter-productive in some cases. It might force the practice deeply underground. Women may not seek medical care because their parents might be charged.
Unfortunately, there are no federal laws banning FGM in Nigeria. Opponents of this practice rely on Section 34(1) (a) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria that states, "no person shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment," as the basis for banning the practice nationwide. Although I understand that Edo sate banned this practice in October 1999. Persons convicted under the law are subject to a 1000 Naira (US$10) fine and imprisonment of six months. While opponents of the practice applaud laws like this one as a step in the right direction, they have criticized the small fine and lack of enforcement thus far. Similarly, Ogun, Cross River, Osun, Rivers and Bayelsa states have also banned the practice since 1999, but how effective the law is can still not be determined. It is pertinent for Nigeria to pursue a state by state strategy to criminalize the practice in all 36 states plus the FCT.
As a matter of urgency, Federal Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General of the federation, Federal Ministry of Health, Federal Ministry of Women's Affairs, other relevant Ministries & health agencies etc, should emulate the position of Western nations and help to advocate, and press for the abolishment of this harmful traditional practice in Nigeria. Also the Mass media, NGOs, religious/faith organisations should join force in the advocacy for the eradication of this practice. It should be our collective responsibility to ensure that the health, rights, dignity, privacy and pride of our women are strongly protected from any form of abuse. Moreover National Assembly (House of Reps and Senate) should pass a bill that will make the practice forbidden and punishable under law. It won't also be out of order if the law(s) that will restrict this practice are enshrined in our constitution, since the amendment of 1999 constitution is still ongoing. The Presidency also has a role to play in the eradication of this demeaning social menace, which over the years has put Nigeria in bad light. This much needed correctional step will definitely help to boost our rebranding for a new and virile, health conscious Nigeria. Our government at all levels should act fast so that the health of our women would be safeguarded against HIV/AIDS, psychological and psychiatric consequences, negative sexual effects and other medical consequences. GOD BLESS NIGERIA!
Emmanuel Ajibulu is a social commentator and a communication strategist.